By Ashley Luthern
Four steps are all it takes for one township woman to feel trapped.
Barbara Boback, 68, lives alone in a condo unit at 5200 West Blvd., a building that looks like an upscale-apartment complex, complete with lush landscaping, a pool and gated parking lot.
To get in or out of her front door, Boback must navigate three steps and a raised curb — a process that’s gotten almost impossible after she became confined to a wheelchair.
“I was in remission from cancer when I moved in about two years ago, but this winter, I got a feeling that something was wrong,” she said.
She was right: In March, she discovered cancer had returned to her lymph nodes.
Now, she has multiple doctors’ appointments, usually at ValleyCare Northside Medical Center or the Hope Center for Cancer Care. But she can’t get there without help.
Her wish is for a ramp, which would help bring the 1969 complex up to current standards required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law in 1990.
But as her story shows, ADA compliance, while required, is largely a civil matter.
Sometimes, private owners do not have to provide ADA upgrades because of the costs.
ADA guidelines are designed to cover many facets of life.
“The focus of the ADA is removing barriers to employment, public services, transportation and public buildings,” said Mitchell Rivard, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice.
It applies to more than just building requirements, but that is usually the area that earns the most attention, he added.
“The ADA requirements are continually updated and revised. There’s public input, and there’s a lot more that goes into the rules and regulations in terms of ADA for accessible design,” Rivard said.
ADA laws are far-reaching, said Jeffrey Uroseva, Mahoning County chief building official.
“It’s not just about ramps. It governs doorknobs, lights, counter heights and everything you could imagine for someone who is disabled to have access throughout,” he said.
Uroseva said in new construction, ADA provisions are part of code requirements adopted at the state and federal levels. Problems most often appear in existing buildings.
Uroseva said building owners are required to provide an accessible means into a building. When existing buildings are renovated, that’s often a time when entry ways, in particular, are brought up to code.
The ADA guidelines are federal measures, and states have adopted most if not all of them.
“But we as a building department do not have the authority to go in there. ... An existing building is allowed to exist, but that doesn’t mean an individual’s rights can be infringed upon. It’s a civil matter,” he said.
A property owner does not have to do upgrades if there’s a “disproportionate cost,” he said.
“If you’re remodeling three walls for $2,000, and the entryway needs a ramp and it costs $10,000, then that’s called a disproportionate cost,” said Uroseva.
The code reads that: Alteration shall not impose a requirement for greater responsibility than would be required for new construction. Often a problem comes up with restrooms, Uroseva said.
“We’ve had cases where they can’t enlarge the restroom because the major supply panel for the electricity is blocking it, and it would cost $40,000 to move that electric panel, and it’s technically unfeasible,” he said.
Boback owns her own condo unit, one of 38 in the complex, and is a member of the condo association. She put in a request for the ramp June 7, and the association is looking into it.
She had spoken to others earlier about it and found some support for the ramp, as nearly all of the residents are 55 years old or older.
“They want older people here, but they don’t want to provide them with access,” she said, pointing out that a ramp would help people to get groceries inside.
Boback graduated from Boardman High School in 1962 and traveled the world working for a cruise line. She lived primarily in San Diego and Orlando before moving back to the Mahoning Valley to be near her daughter, who lives in Canfield.
She pays more than $300 each month for the association to handle heating and cooling, water and other utilities and outside maintenance.
Temporary ramps were provided for Boback’s use, but Tom Carney, the association president, admits that she would need help from another person to use them and move her wheelchair onto the ramp. The ramps are about 5 feet long and just more than 2 feet wide.
Carney said that most people in the complex do not want to install a permanent ramp because of the cost.
“They have to pay an assessment, and it could possibly cost [each] resident $1,000 or $1,200,” he said.
Plus, Carney worries about a domino effect.
“If you go in that direction, everything would have to change. You would have to change the bathrooms to be handicapped accessible,” Carney said.
Some renovation work is being done to the 5200 West Boulevard complex, but it’s a minor alteration to replace columns with vinyl siding and soffits and install crown molding. It’s not changing the steps or walking surface, according to county building permits.
“We wouldn’t look at that as triggering [the ADA]. If the work is more extensive like moving the steps from one side to another, then we might look at it as triggering an ADA upgrade,” Uroseva said, adding that all permits are issued only after an on-site inspection.
“An existing structure like that, the building department is pretty much without authority as far as forcing someone to comply. It becomes a civil issue between that individual and that property owner, and that is the case with any building,” he said.
Uroseva said that ADA compliance is important, and it isn’t always a tenant who reports an ADA concern, but it could be someone visiting or somebody driving by.
Not having areas accessible to people with disabilities “is a form of discrimination,” Uroseva said.
But Carney maintains Boback knew what she was getting into and viewed the steps that are required to get to the pool, the parking area and into the building, before she moved in two years ago.
“There are steps all over the place,” he said.
Boback said her health was better and the cancer was in remission two years ago when she first viewed the condo. And she understands she is stuck — physically and metaphorically — in this situation.
Still, with her fixed income and mounting medical bills, she doesn’t have the funds to pay for a ramp herself, as some have suggested she do.
“It’s a good lesson in don’t buy a condo unless you’ve read all the rules,” she said.